When he went to college, my dad said he would study Political Science because he wanted to be President in order to change the world. He never became President.
But I'm honestly not sure he could have done any better changing the world as President than he did through his ultimate vocation of teaching at St. Olaf College, as he did for 36 years before his death this past July.
The key to his success at inspiring students – he taught nearly 18,000 students in his career – was his thoughtful circumvention of the teaching relationship. He fully embraced Wendell Berry's notion that the best teachers are friends to their students. In Berry's words, which my dad quoted in introspective essay on being a college professor, he explains:
"The best relationships of teacher and student are those that turn into friendships. In friendship the education machine is entirely circumvented and removed from consideration, and the two minds can meet freely and fully. The student comes to know the teacher, which in my opinion is a thousand times better than knowing what the teacher knows. The teacher ceases to function merely as a preceptor and becomes an example–an example of something, good or bad, that his [or her] life has proved to be possible.”
Many of his former students came to memorial services held in Minneapolis and at St. Olaf in Northfield. Nearly all reflected on how my dad's commitment to being a quiet example provided them with the inspiration to follow their dreams, as sustainable farmers, city council members, or even college professors.
My dad lives on in the remarkable young people he met and inspired for so many years, and also in the memory of a quiet, thoughtful person who was always there for a conversation.